The Journal’s Christopher Conkey has an article in today’s paper about Amtrak, and it includes some interesting snippets.
First, the good news: July’s ridership is up 13.9% from July 2007 overall, with the Capitol Corridor in California up 33% and the Northeast Corridor (NEC) up 8%. The current pace, if maintained, will result in an annual ridership of nearly 26 million this year.
Then, some bad news: Amtrak’s fleet is aging and currently sees so much use there is little excess capacity to expand service or add frequencies.
The article includes comments from Amtrak President Alex Kummant. Many of the points he touches on mirror comments found in a June interview he have to Reuters (my take on that conversation). As the 1970s Budd Amfleet cars reach the end of their service life, fleet recapitalization is becoming a central issue. Since the new Acela trainsets are seeing near-capacity ridership, Kummant is already envisioning equipment purchases to augment and ultimately replace them. The price tag for all of this – approximately $3 billion.
Additionally, the article touches on the $5 billion in deferred maintenance work that should be performed along the NEC. I always think articles like this manage to include that scary statistic without explaining the effect of that deferred work. The limitations these deficiencies impose are reflected in speed limitations, rather than any fear of tunnel collapse or bridge failure. Rather than sinking billions into Mica’s new right of way (see here and here for background), substantial improvements in service could be had simply by bringing the existing infrastructure back into a state of good repair. Given the rate this nation spends money around the world, I often think that spending this money here at home would be a more sound investment.
Referring to the notional high-speed rail that is so often dreamed of along the NEC, Kummant offers this accurate remark:
There’s [sic] two railroads out there. There’s the one we run every day, and there’s the one everybody imagines is out there.
The article also has a video associated with it, which I am unable to embed, so here is the link. It is a look at the slower corridors in the Midwest that rely on freight track, and the hurdles they face as states seek to improve their citizens’ transportation options.
Some Amtrak asides…
Sources in D.C. have told me that House and Committee staff members have indicated that Amtrak would be provided funding for new, desperately needed electric engines as part of a proposed economic stimulus bill. The poison pill in this offer? The requirement that the engines would need to be manufactured in America. For the record, the United States assembles as many electric engines here as we do starships. NJT’s recent ALP-46s are from Germany and Amtrak and MARCs none-too-popular HHP’s are essentially Alstom designs.
Also, here is an interesting exercise in capital planning. An essential choice Amtrak faces in its next-generation equipment is to adopt additional trainset-based equipment, or to stick with traditional locomotive-hauled coaches. Trainsets offer sufficient advantages that they are the basis for nearly all of the world’s high-speed trains, but of course the Acela demonstrates that American regulations require so many alterations that the idea of using foreign equipment off-the-shelf is just a dream. If one pursued trainsets, the first step is to make them compliant with American crashworthiness standards. After that, you must also think of capacity issues. The Acela trainsets are eight units long (four coaches, a bistro, a first class car, and two power cars). If more seating is a requirement, any future trainsets will need to be longer, which has all sorts of operational impact on stations with limited platform lengths (which is to say nearly all of them). Also, as is seen in the Acela cars, American crashworthiness standards prevent the inclusion of traps in the car-end vestibules, limiting Acela service to stations with high-level platforms. This means that many of the routes the Acelas would be moved to, once they are replaced cannot support them without expensive upgrades. A perfect example is Pennsylvania’s Keystone Corridor. That route is already electrified and would be an ideal place to employ the Acelas and yet Pennsylvania and the Main Line communities outside of Philadelphia may not be prepared to invest the necessary funds to support long, high-level platform service.
Any decision to augment the AEM-7 and HHP-8 engines with new engines of some sort may well suggest that Amtrak plans to stick with locomotive-hauled cars as a substantial part of of its fleet for the foreseeable future. I will be watching the tea leaves on this with great curiosity.